Gotham Gazette

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Claiming 'The Campaign of Ideas' in Mayoral Race, Shaun Donovan Releases Climate and Transit Plans

shaun donovan subway

Shaun Donovan on the subway (photo: Donovan campaign)

 “We’re the campaign of ideas,” Shaun Donovan’s team has declared, as the former Obama cabinet official and Bloomberg housing commissioner recently launched his bid to succeed the term-limited Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City.

Donovan — who served as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Barack Obama and Commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayor Michael Bloomberg — offered a handful of specific broad policy planks during his campaign launch event on December 8, then followed those up by releasing detailed climate and transportation plans, which have overlapping aspects.

Donovan is running as part of a crowded and diverse field of candidates in the Democratic primary set for June 2021. He is among only a few of the many candidates to put forward any detailed policy proposals.

One early Donovan proposal picks up on pledges made by local leaders elsewhere that residents should be able to access “core services” without venturing too far from home. “Within 15 minutes of your front door, ​every​ New Yorker should have a great public school, fresh food, access to rapid transportation, a park, a chance to get ahead,” he said in his campaign launch speech, which he gave from the rooftop of an affordable housing development in the Bronx, the product of a deal he orchestrated as the city’s housing commissioner.

As mayor, Donovan would “embed climate into every single decision made by the city,” according to the climate plan.

On transportation, he would “put people, not cars, at the center of all transportation conversations and projects.”

Donovan’s proposals for climate and transportation come together on expanding green space and encouraging methods of transit other than the automobile, especially those that run on gas. Donovan has himself promised to ride the subway every day as mayor, which would be a major shift from de Blasio, who rarely rides public transit.

Both plans emphasize using data to guide decision-making, a management principle reflective of the Bloomberg ethos. While there are several specific numerical goals in Donovan’s climate plan, some of which are current laws or goals per city or state government, there are none in the transit plan. There are no cost estimates in either plan; the transit plan mentions several potential sources of revenue to help pay for it.

Some components of both plans are already in the works via New York City or MTA policy, but the next mayor will have a great deal of say as to how they are implemented, and in a number of instances Donovan is proposing an expansion or adjustment to existing programs.

For example, Donovan says if elected he would make permanent the city’s Open Streets program, launched during the COVID-19 pandemic along several dozen city corridors to allow businesses to serve patrons outside and provide New Yorkers with car-free outdoor streetspace. He’s pledging more and connected bike lanes, additional bus lanes, and new public parks. He also plans to make the city’s buses, including school buses, electric in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Regularly emphasizing his relationship with President-elect Joe Biden and other federal officials, Donovan says that he would partner with the new administration to achieve local goals while also partnering with communities throughout the five boroughs, especially public housing residents and communities of color who have borne the brunt of environmental injustice.

Donovan’s climate goals include New York City staying on-track to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and making “meaningful progress” toward zero waste. This means focusing on buildings and transportation, two of the largest toxic emitters.

“We envision a future where all public and private buildings in NYC run on pollution-free electricity, phasing out the use of fossil fuels, including gas and oil, in all buildings,” Donovan’s climate plan says. As mayor he would “enact a zero-carbon building code for new buildings by 2030 and eliminate fossil fuels from new building construction and operation even sooner.” He’d support stronger building code enforcement and incentivize energy efficiency measures for smaller buildings to which the carbon emissions caps enacted by the city (via Local Law 97) do not apply. His administration would also work to “refine and implement” this building emissions law.

His climate strategy also focuses on improving energy efficiency in NYCHA public housing, where residents suffer from environmental injustice and where there are often heat and hot water outages. Donovan would conduct energy audits and retrofits “as fast as possible.” He’d also improve access to waste and recycling bins in public housing. At a forum on housing and homelessness earlier this month, Donovan said there should be solar panels “on every roof in NYCHA.”

In order to decrease waste, Donovan says he would introduce recycling requirements for construction and demolition materials, reduce restaurants’ and other food vendors’ use of single-use plastic, and restore the city’s curbside organics recycling program, which was cut this year by de Blasio as part of the covid budget crunch.

Upgrading New York City infrastructure to be more climate friendly and resilient to the impacts of climate change are also part of Donovan’s plan, including related to transportation.

To accomplish some of the work involved and also tackle other challenges, Donovan would hope to re-skill workers and create “well-paying and accessible” jobs. As mayor, he’d spearhead an NYC Climate Corps modeled after the nationwide Clean Energy Corps initiated under the Obama administration. This initiative would build on existing CUNY programs.

“Adequate funding and thoughtful program design will ensure that the Corps can fully include and support diverse participants who reflect the communities they serve,” the plan says.

Donovan’s administration would also establish a Youth Horticulture Corps to create jobs and educate young people while maintaining public space. It would also create a Clean Power Generator Jobs Accelerator to incentivize private investment in the wind-power generation sector and create jobs.

Donovan thinks K-12 students should be educated about climate change and environmental justice and taught to recycle. His plan also includes establishing “a larger cohort of new, focused high-schools – building off the model of Energy Tech – in the city’s most environmentally burdened communities.” His administration would hope to expand community sustainability projects in schools and encourage outdoor learning.

With CUNY, Donovan would also work to develop new credentials or degree programs related to sustainability.

The candidate’s plan includes expanding “green infrastructure,” like parks, light-colored and reflective roofs, and street trees, much of which would act to mitigate the effects of extreme heat. Meanwhile, he’d subsidize air conditioners for “environmental justice communities” to prevent heat-related illness and establish an air conditioner rebate for people to trade old air conditioners in for new energy-efficient ones.

He’d aim to make the city’s Open Streets program permanent, reallocate curb space from parking to “more efficient delivery of goods” or “potentially new approaches to trash collection,” and he would continue the city on its path to close down the Rikers Island jail complex. Rikers Island “can be a source of public good” environmentally, the plan says.

"The Donovan administration will work with stakeholders citywide to ensure [Rikers island] becomes a cornerstone of community development and Just Transition for uses like green energy, a 21st century wastewater treatment facility to clean our water, composting, and possibly even new public space," the plan says.

When expanding green space, Donovan’s administration would prioritize “funding for neighborhoods and spaces that have less open space, fewer investment opportunities, and that face disproportionately negative impacts of environmental and public health conditions,” according to the plan.

The climate plan also outlines preparation for natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy so that floods and storms don’t shut down the city. Donovan, who led Obama administration efforts to respond to Sandy’s devastation in New York, would assess the city’s emergency response and work with the state, New Jersey, and Connecticut to increase regional resiliency. He would develop a disaster response plan that “considers cross-boundary impacts across the region, responds to real-time data and climate science, and is rooted in community-driven engagement.” He’d also “expand the use of physical and social vulnerability mapping to better identify and protect at-risk communities.” And he would establish a “resilience commission” to work across sectors and provide policy recommendations.

Under a Donovan mayoralty, the city would also look into closing and replacing peaker plants, which use fossil fuels and emit exhaust and pollution, potentially leading to respiratory illnesses in local communities.

For Donovan, mitigating the effects of climate change also means reducing health disparities. His administration would “ensure that public health disparities in NYC will be reduced with the goal that no New Yorker faces disproportionate health burden as a result of environmental factors, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or zipcode,” the plan says. He would also make a “targeted effort” to help communities of color, such as those in parts of the Bronx, which by many measures have suffered the most from the COVID-19 pandemic and from environmental racism and injustice.

As for transportation, Donovan aims to improve access to relatively efficient modes of transportation like buses and bikes. His plan involves making the MTA’s bus system entirely electric by 2040 and expanding bus service “to reach traditionally underserved neighborhoods.” These efforts would have to be done in conjunction with the MTA and the state.

Donovan says he would also work with public schools “to convert a portion of yellow diesel buses to electric models, starting with pilot programs and prioritizing buses serving environmental justice communities.” He’d also increase availability of electric vehicle charging stations.

Donovan would also seek to connect bike lanes and increase the number of protected bike lanes to improve riders’ safety, helping to encourage people out of cars.

Donovan’s transportation plan emphasizes improving the city’s notoriously slow bus service, increasing safety for cyclists, experimenting with e-scooters, and finding new ways to fund public transportation. His plan calls for an “overhaul” and expansion of the current mayor’s Vision Zero initiative for eliminating traffic fatalities by 2024 through a variety of measures. While de Blasio has been given credit for putting Vision Zero into place, he has been criticized for focusing too much on police enforcement and for not moving aggressively enough on protected bike lanes, street redesigns, and other traffic-calming measures.

“The city should prioritize investment in a true Bus Rapid Transit System in key corridors,” the plan says, “with dedicated right of ways, intersection treatments, and stations while also improving regular bus service.”

As mayor, Donovan says he would expand bus lanes in transit deserts and marginalized communities and also seek to speed up buses by supporting all-door boarding with the OMNY payment system that the MTA has been rolling out, expanding automated camera enforcement of bus lane rules, and installing more traffic signal priority technology so that buses don’t need to wait as long at intersections.

In addition to connecting and protecting bike lanes, a Donovan administration would connect them with transportation hubs with secure bike parking. He’d also launch an e-scooter pilot program, the plan says, and take measures to make the pilot successful, like using technology to keep e-scooters away from high-traffic pedestrian areas and alleviate sidewalk traffic. “Scooters and e-bikes will be legal in communities where access to subways and rapid buses is furthest,” Donovan said in his campaign launch speech.

Amid an increase in cyclist deaths on city streets (24 cyclists have died in 2020, according to the Department of Transportation), Donovan believes that if the city can “improve street design, get reckless, unsafe drivers off our streets, and reduce illegal speeding by cars and trucks,” then more people will feel safe cycling around the city rather than using a more environmentally-harmful mode of transportation.

Both Donovan’s transportation and climate plans say that he believes public transportation must be improved before the implementation of congestion pricing, which will charge drivers for entering Manhattan at 60th Street and below, with revenue used to fund the suffering public transportation system, expected to still be reeling financially from the COVID-19 pandemic when a new mayor takes office in January 2022. Congestion pricing was passed by the state in spring 2019 but has been blocked by the Trump administration. Officials and advocates are hopeful the Biden administration will quickly allow New York to move ahead with congestion pricing, though it will still take time to plan and execute.

Donovan says he would lobby for federal funding to the MTA, implement value capture, and consider a tax on recreational marijuana sales, assuming it is legalized in New York. “We will recommend that every future expansion project use value capture as part of its funding,” the transportation plan says, though it does not specifically include expanding the subway.

A Donovan administration would also seek to strengthen partnerships with the MTA and increase the city’s influence with what is in essence a state-run public authority, though the mayor of New York City has the second-most MTA Board appointees behind the governor, but those seats make up a small fraction of the overall Board. The city government also contributes billions of dollars to the MTA budget, while New York City residents are also responsible for a significant share of MTA funding through tolls, fares, and dedicated taxes. Donovan’s plan says that as mayor he would work to increase oversight of the MTA and give the city more seats on the MTA Board.

“We will partner with the MTA on key priorities, collaborate on bringing new financing, and install more effective and high-level communication channels,” the plan says.

by Lauren Hakimi, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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